Las Americas

FUN IN THE SUN reads the flier distributed by Neighborhood Ranch Watch, a group of Anglo ranchers along the Arizona-Sonora Mexico border who for the past few years have been celebrating organized hunts of human prey – undocumented Mexicans crossing the Douglas-Agua Prieta corridor. Dedicated to “preserving the American Way,” the ranchers and their guests hunt down the indocumentados with long guns, jeeps, cell phones, and dogs. In the past year, brags Dan Barnett, Neighborhood Ranch Watchers have turned 350 border jumpers over to the U.S. Border Patrol and Cochise County sheriff deputies for deportation.

One unidentified Mexican, rope burns around his neck to suggest a lynching, was found dead recently in the desert west of the Barnett ranch. On March 22, Cipriano Ramírez, a twenty-three-year-old candy vendor from the central Mexican state of Morelos, threaded his way through the Barnett ranch on his way north to a job in Chicago. Surprised by young Roger Barnett, Cipriano didn’t realize he was a player in a deadly game. Barnett opened fire, perforating Ramírez’ intestines. Near death in a Tucson hospital, the young indocumentado received a Whitman’s Sampler of chocolates from the Barnett family and a note saying they were sorry – Roger had been out hunting “a bad dog” that morning. Cipriano was in their prayers. It’s the American Way.

The ugliness and hostility toward immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border these days contrasts sharply with what lies beyond in the heartland of North America, where unprecedented economic growth and the lowest unemployment rate in thirty years has employers crying out for workers. While Douglas ranchers shoot down Mexicans like dogs, a few hundred miles north in Phoenix, building maintenance contractors scour the streets to recruit minimum-wage office cleaners.

What is happening now in Arizona is related to what happened five years ago in California, where at the bottom of a regional recession the Border Patrol initiated “Operation Guardian,” a hard-nosed program designed to up the risks of illegal immigration and close the San Diego-Tijuana border to indocumentados. Driven east into the deserts and mountains, over 500 Mexican migrant workers perished trying to break through the border barrier into the boom economy in the U.S. The border-crossing boom that drives the Anglo ranchers in the Douglas-Agua Prieta to homicidal frenzy is the result of pressures created by Operation Guardian, and Operation Hold the Line, a similar border offensive in El Paso-Ciudad Juárez. Closing those crossing points has pushed migrants into the Arizona desert.

Operation Guardian was inaugurated during a period of particularly virulent anti-Mexican hysteria in California, when unemployment was higher than 7 percent in the once-Golden State. Guardian was one leg of a right-wing putsch that included passage of Proposition 187, which barred undocumented workers from school, health services, and public welfare, and Proposition 225, which outlawed bilingual education. In 2000, California has again found its golden touch, and memories of the mid-Nineties – when the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazis “lit up the border” to make it easier for the Border Patrol (la Migra) to track down Mexicans – are pretty dim.

Surveying the long lines of Generation Xers that stream into his hip San Francisco Mission District burrito parlor, Gary Espinosa says he is making lots of money these days, as he hands an old friend a card advertising a new branch in upscale Marin County. The best thing, Espinosa says, is that la Migra doesn’t “bother my girls anymore.” The girls are a dozen young burrito makers – almost all of them from Mexico – working behind the counter. In the past, immigration raids have been frequent.

“We haven’t had a visit from Immigration for over a year,” confirms Beatríz Johnson, an organizer for the San Francisco Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, a local that has organized many undocumented members. The union has been in the forefront of the thirteen-million-member American Federation of Labor’s drive to organize mostly Mexican workers. The picture is much the same all across the U.S. In Chicago, where Cipriano Ramírez was headed before the Barnetts “mistook” him for a dog, a tight labor market has opened the door for tens of thousands of Mexican temporary workers who no longer need fear Migra raids – so long as the U.S. economy is booming. Indeed, the predominantly Mexican laundry workers in Chicago recently won a contract that protects them from Immigration raids and even guarantees their jobs back should they be deported. Seniority is guaranteed even if the deported worker returns bearing different identification papers and a new identity.

Workplace raids by Immigration & Naturalization agents bagged 22,000 illegal workers in 1998 but only 8,000 last year. At the same time, according to Mexican government estimates, the U.S. boom has increased the flow north from 800,000 to 1.2 million Mexican workers over the past five years. The reasons for the resurgent race to the border can be summed up in two words: salary differentials. A recent survey of 500 Mexicans working in the U.S. (reported by the Mexico City daily La Jornada) found that their average weekly wages were $278. The average weekly wage earned by those same workers before they left Mexico was $31. If an undocumented worker can get across the border alive, opportunities abound in a country that is experiencing its record-breaking ninth consecutive quarter of growth. In April, the high octane U.S. economy produced 360,000 new jobs and the available worker pool shrank to its lowest level since the U.S. Labor Department began keeping records.

While the ranchers in Arizona take up arms to keep the Mexican invasion at bay, such diverse voices as Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, A.F.L.-C.I.O. president John Sweeney, and the National Association of Manufacturers (N.A.M.) are calling for the relaxation of immigration laws, so the much-needed Mexican workers can get in the door. Their motives for immigrant advocacy are, however, distinct. For Greenspan, probably the most powerful economist on the planet whose life work has been to contain the U.S. inflation rate, undocumented workers are a hedge against inflation. In a tight labor market, wages go up and cut into profits, thereby triggering inflationary price hikes. A flood of Mexican minimum-wage workers keeps wages, and therefore inflation, lower. The N.A.M. and the nation’s investment bankers endorse the strategy because it promises to prolong the current profit-taking.

The A.F.L.-C.I.O. looks at the demographics (Mexicans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S. workforce) as well as the economics, and calls for a blanket amnesty to legalize as many as 2,000,000 undocumented workers. The giant labor federation is also calling for an end to sanctions against employers who, knowingly or not, hire indocumentados. Ten years ago, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. lobbied hard for the passage of employer sanctions. In Mexican workers, Sweeney sees the future of organized labor. Under Sweeney’s direction, labor has moved aggressively to organize the undocumented – the UNITE drive to sign up Chicago laundry workers (and win the raid-protection clause) is one among dozens of organizing efforts aimed at unionizing low-wage immigrant workers.

The most visible union movement is the Service Employees International Union’s “Justice for Janitors” campaign to organize office cleaners from San Diego and Los Angeles to Chicago and New York. The struggle pits mainly Mexican workers against some of the most powerful corporations in the U.S. “These companies are benefiting from the low wages they pay us,” Guadalupe Herrera, a Mexican-born office cleaner at Cisco Systems in California’s Silicon Valley, recently told The New York Times. Silicon Valley office cleaners earn the $5.50 an hour minimum wage, and dream of the $8 hourly pay the union organizing drive promises. Although the average U.S. hourly wage is now $13, a quarter of the labor force works at jobs that pay below $8 an hour.

The current demand for undocumented workers has muted immigration as an issue in this year’s U.S. presidential race. Unlike in 1996, when Mexican immigration was the hot-button issue, Al Gore and George Bush have not been quick to pick up the cudgels. Indeed Bush, a border-state governor, is considered an immigration-friendly candidate. Only Pat Buchanan, who four years ago preached going to guns to defend the U.S. against a “foreign invasion,” is still fulminating on the issue as he wraps up the Reform Party nomination. And very few Americans, it seems, are joining Buchanan’s pitchfork brigade.

U.S. immigration policy has historically been driven by labor-demand enforcement. And cycles of Mexican migration are tied to the expansions and contractions of the economy north of the border. At the beginning of the last century, Mexicans were welcomed by western growers and the expanding railroads, until many of them were forced out by the Depression scare of 1921, when the U.S. passed stringent “anti-alien” legislation. Again, the big crash of 1929 put tens of thousands of Mexicans on the deportation trains heading south from Los Angeles – until the World War II worker shortage invited them all back. In the Sixties, “Operation Wetback” drove Mexicans back across the border. Today, Operation Guardian is just one more recrudescence, although it is out of sync with the economy.

So long as the U.S. bubble does not burst, undocumented Mexicans working in El Norte remain protected from mass deportations. But if history is any teacher, a long-predicted cooling of the U.S. economy will trigger a crackdown on the indocumentados, more killings in the desert, forced exodus, and subsequent pressures on Mexico’s own economic stability.

John Ross is currently in Chiapas, Mexico. His forthcoming book, The War Against Oblivion: Zapatista Chronicles 1994-2000, now has a cover. This story was reported from California, Arizona, and Mexico City.

From the Texas Front

According to a May 22 report in the Houston Chronicle, border vigilantism has not been confined to Arizona. Since January of 1999, five separate shootings of migrants have taken place in the Del Rio sector of the U.S. Border Patrol. Two victims were shot dead. Local officials contend that newcomers to the area – mainly retirees from out of state who purchased ranchettes along the Rio Grande – are largely to blame. “The average rancher has learned from his daddy and his granddaddy that the best thing to do is ignore the immigrants,” Kinney County Sheriff L.K. “Buddy” Burgess told the Chronicle. “It’s the newcomers who are scared of them and think they have to apprehend them.”

That was apparently the scenario that resulted in the May 13 shooting death of Eusebio de Haro, twenty-three, of Guanajuato, Mexico. According to investigators, de Haro and a companion approached the Brackettville-area residence of Sam Blackwood, apparently to ask for water. Blackwood, a seventy-four-year-old retired military officer from Arkansas, told the men to leave his property. He then followed them, and for reasons still unclear, shot de Haro in the leg. According to investigators, de Haro was shot from behind in broad daylight, at a distance, in a location removed from Blackwood’s property. Blackwood’s wife called the police to report that her husband had just shot someone, but by the time they arrived de Haro had bled to death. Murder charges have been filed against Blackwood. “In my opinion, he was trying to apprehend the two men,” Sheriff Burgess told the Chronicle.

In another instance, one recent transplant from Louisiana, Patrick Bordelon, is accused of shooting migrants on two separate occasions. On June 6 of last year, Bordelon (a mechanic at Laughlin Air Force Base living in the Vega Verde community near Del Rio) allegedly shot a sixteen-year-old migrant three times with a shotgun. The boy survived, and Bordelon was charged with assault. While out on bond for that shooting, he allegedly shot another migrant in the back of the head on the Mexican side of the river. The body of that sixteen-year-old was found in the river on November 12. Bordelon has been charged with murder.

Del Rio area District Attorney Tom Lee said residents in rural communities near Del Rio have complained of frequent burglaries by Mexicans, who wait just across the river until they know houses are vacant. But the shootings do not appear to be part of a coordinated effort by border landowners, and have shocked long-time residents. “We take a dim view of shooting other people in the back out here, I can tell you that,” Lee told the Chronicle. –N.B.

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